Faced with criticism, CatholicVote chief says ‘let’s get the facts’ on role of Catholic charities in helping migrants

Faced with criticism, CatholicVote chief says ‘let’s get the facts’ on role of Catholic charities in helping migrants


A male Border Patrol agent in La Joya, Texas speaks in November 2021 with a Honduran man holding his daughter and waiting to be transported to a processing center after turning himself in to seek asylum. /shutterstock

Denver Newsroom, Feb. 11, 2022 / 4:42 p.m. (CNA).

On Friday, the head of a Catholic political advocacy group pushed back against criticism of the organization’s legal efforts to obtain federal documents related to the work Catholic dioceses and charities are doing to help undocumented migrants cross the border. border between Texas and Mexico.

“Catholics and Americans more broadly are frustrated with the situation on our border, and anyone truly concerned should welcome more facts,” Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote, told CNA, adding that transparency “can only be ‘a good thing”.

In a Feb. 9 email, Burch announced that CatholicVote had joined the conservative group Judicial Watch in filing a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, alleging that agencies dragged their feet in response to Freedom. of Information Act (FOIA) records CatholicVote requests filed Sept. 1, 2021. The requests sought copies of “all communications” between agencies and Catholic-affiliated groups working at the border.

“We want to know: what role do Catholic charities, dioceses or affiliated Catholic relief organizations play in this effort? Do they help to house migrants in houses, hotels or shelters? Do they pay for transport, flights, buses or other services – with government money? Burch wrote in the email. “Is what they are doing legal? And is it the right thing to do?

FOIA requests specifically request records relating to the following groups and individuals: the Diocese of Brownsville; the Bishop of Brownsville, Daniel E. Flores; Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV); Sister Norma Pimentel, CCRGV Executive Director; the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas; and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The lawsuits and the subject of the document requests have drawn strong criticism from some Catholic leaders and groups.

“There is nothing wrong with feeding the hungry and providing care for those here in our country,” Pimentel told the National Catholic Reporter.

Bishop Flores also opposed CatholicVote’s actions. “I wonder why Catholic Charities is singled out when a number of other NGOs and municipal entities have received and are also receiving funding,” he said. Bishop Michael F. Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth echoed the same sentiment in a tweet posted Friday.

Amid the backlash, Burch agreed to answer CNA’s questions about the controversy via email. Below are CNA’s questions and Burch’s answers. Minor editing changes have been made for clarity.

How can your FOIA request for communications between Catholic charities be seen as anything other than an attack on the necessary and urgent work that Catholic organizations are doing at the border in the name of Christian charity?

Transparency is never a bad thing. The Freedom of Information Act was established to make government activities more transparent and accountable to the public so that citizens can be better informed when working to influence public policy. So far, the Biden administration has refused to respond to our legitimate request to communicate with these Catholic entities. And the unfortunate fact is that Catholics across America have little understanding of what the federal government is doing today with charities and Catholic-affiliated organizations on the frontier. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on these entities and everyone should welcome this attention.

Why do you specifically target Catholic leaders, including Bishop Flores or Sister Norma Pimentel, who have responded to a humanitarian emergency?

Our request simply named the Catholic agencies and entities responsible for the work being done at the border in partnership with the federal government. An intelligible FOIA request requires it. Moreover, our request made no judgment on the motivations or the work of these entities.

But you also raise an important point. There is indeed a humanitarian emergency at the border. And while many people are doing a good job of dealing with this crisis, the problem persists and has worsened precipitously over the past two years. It’s time to ask the tough questions about whether our public policies, our government leaders, and even the Catholic response to this crisis is helping, and how things can be improved or changed. Catholics and Americans more broadly are frustrated with the situation on our border, and anyone truly concerned should welcome more facts.

How is the FOIA request not political or politically partisan, when it targets a Democratic administration and is filed in conjunction with Judicial Watch, a reputable conservative organization?

The humanitarian crisis at the border is a problem for both parties and for all Americans. Responsible citizenship is about sometimes asking tough questions of our government, regardless of which party is in control. Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., recently said that “the Church must be political” and that “we do our members a disservice if we call for an apolitical Church, for that would be a Church that would be away from the concerns of the human family.We agree, and we believe that it is above all the responsibility of the laity, which is why our organization was founded.

Regarding this administration, Sister Pimentel recently revealed that grant money is used to transport migrants across the country. This confession only came after investigative reporting by Bill Melugin, who discovered that federal agents were escorting Catholic Charities migrants to a bus station that took them away from the border. Catholics deserve to know the details of how the Biden administration is working with these charities.

Again, transparency can only be a good thing.

Judicial Watch is a well-known organization with expertise in filing and securing responses to FOIA requests from Republican and Democratic administrations. They fought (former Republican Vice President]Dick Cheney all the way to the Supreme Court. The importance of getting Catholics the information they deserve to make informed judgments about the crisis on our border is a matter non-partisan.

Do you have reason to believe that the delay in completing your FOIA request is unusual? Doesn’t it often take months or more to get this kind of information from the government, especially in the case of documents shared by multiple federal agencies?

Of course, it is common for government agencies to block the public. Often they don’t want to be available with documents and information. This is why watchdog organizations regularly have to resort to legal action to force these agencies to act. Our FOIA requests were filed in September of last year. The courts have agreed that six months is a reasonable time to wait for a response before a lawsuit is ripe.

What practical purposes can this decision have when CatholicVote will likely have to wait months, if not years, for a response?

We hope we won’t have to wait that long. Already, our lawsuits are drawing attention to this issue and reminding our political and religious leaders that the public cannot be ignored. It’s good for everyone, from ordinary Catholics on the pews worried about what they see at the border, to officials tasked with advancing the common good, to refugees and migrants themselves. – many of whom are suffering the most from the humanitarian crisis on the border. Our lawsuits have also already prompted insiders to share information about what they know, which helps shape our understanding of what is going on.

In addition to filing your FOIA requests, have you sought to obtain the information you seek from Catholic charities and other groups themselves?

We review all available public documents, grants, tax returns and reports. But this information is limited. We also want to understand how our government uses these Catholic agencies to carry out its immigration policies. Charities have no obligation to respond, but Catholics have the right under the Freedom of Information Act to ask our government these questions and get answers. One need only look at the vicious attacks launched against us to understand why we had to proceed as we did.

Is it fair to publicly imply that something illegal is going on with regard to Catholic charities and similar groups on the border, before first finding out the facts?

We need to move beyond the bogus binary framework, where it is assumed that any work done at the border is fair and beyond scrutiny, and anyone raising questions is a racist enemy of the Church or of migrants . We are looking for facts. Every Catholic in America deserves them. In doing so, we have raised legitimate questions about whether the federal government and its partnership with these agencies is helpful, even legal. If nothing wrong happens, there is nothing to worry about.

The terrible situation at the border deserves more sunshine and attention, not less. We have seen murders, countless missing children, and women and girls routinely assaulted and sexually trafficked. According to some sources, 30% of women are raped during migration. The worst actors – the cartels and smugglers – have made a lucrative business out of the status quo. And there is also the plight of migrants who manage to cross our disorderly border, only to find themselves trapped in an underground economy. Meanwhile, dangerous drugs are entering our own communities where they are destroying our own citizens. Nobody wants this to continue.

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Let’s see the facts. Let’s have an informed debate. Stop shaming Catholics who ask tough questions. The status quo is unacceptable. Something has to change.

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